Introduction to Blog

I launched the website and the Blog after having spoken to government officials, political analysts and security experts specializing in South Asian affairs from three continents. The feedback was uniformly consistent. The bottom line is that when Kashmiris are suffering and the world has its own set of priorities, we need to find ways to help each other. We must be realistic, go beyond polemics and demagoguery, and propose innovative ideas that will bring peace, justice and prosperity in all of Jammu and Kashmir.

The author had two reasons to create this blog. First, it was to address the question that was being asked repeatedly, especially, by journalists and other observers in the U.S., U.K., and Canada, inquiring whether the Kashmiri society was concerned about social, cultural and environmental challenges in the valley given that only political upheaval and violence were reported or highlighted by media.

Second, the author has covered the entire spectrum of societal issues and challenges facing Kashmiri people over an 8-year period with the exception of politics given that politics gets all the exposure at the expense of REAL CHALLENGES that will likely result in irreversible degradation in the quality of life and the standard of living for future generations of Kashmiris to come.

The author stopped adding additional material to the Blog once it was felt that most, if not all, concerns, challenges and issues facing the Kashmiri society are cataloged in the Blog. There are over 1900 entries in the Blog and most commentaries include short biographical sketches of authors to bring readers close to the essence of Kashmir. Unfortunately, the 8-year assessment also indicates that neither Kashmiri civil society, nor intellectuals or political leadership have any inclination or enthusiasm in pursuing issues that do not coincide with their vested political agendas. What it means for the future of Kashmiri children and their children is unfathomable. But the evidence is all laid out.

This Blog is a reality check on Kashmir. It is a historical record of how Kashmir lost its way.

Vijay Sazawal, Ph.D.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

An Investigative Report on how the Forest Department is Looting Prime Timber Forests in Kashmir

Reyaz seeks the mastermind of the illicit plunder and comes face to face with the Chief Conservator of Forests (CCF) Abdul Razak and the Forest Minister (FM) Qazi Afzal

Forest loot continues unabated in Bandipora under official patronage

FM and CCF confess involvement of forest officials; say will investigate (meaning no action will be taken)

Reyaz Ahmed (Kashmir Images)

Bandipora: The loot and plunder of forest wealth in newly created Bandipora district which continues unabated with active connivance and help of forest officials is turning the entire forest ranges barren and bald here.

If thousands of stumps of chopped off trees dotting the forest areas of the entire district are taken as a pointer, the amount and extent of vandalism of beautiful forests here is certainly a grave concern for all except the greedy forest officials “who are hand-in-glove with the timber smugglers”, locals say.

Interestingly, while the Minster of Forests Qazi Mohammed Afzal admits the involvement of forests officers in smuggling saying “I am well aware of the fact that there is involvement of forest officials in the smuggling”, but about corrective measures he has just a token answer: “My ministry is going to investigate the matter.”

According to the locals here, it’s an "organized loot” of green gold with forest officials helping smugglers to earn quick buck. They also blame police and army for being hand-in-glove with smugglers. "The felling of trees is pretty common in this area; and the damage is far more than what forest authorities confess," said Abdul Rashid Bhat, a local resident of Bandipora. Pointing towards the stumps of chopped off trees, the many locals while talking to ‘Kashmir Images’ said, "All this would not have been not possible without the help and support of forest authorities; trees are felled here in broad daylight and officials receive share of this loot from smugglers.”

Although the plunder is rampant everywhere, however, the damage is more visible in certain forest compartments than in others. The dense forests of Bankoot and Chiternar Bandipora have already become barren as the smugglers are axing down green trees in major forest compartments 80-110.

The locals here told ‘Kashmir Images’ that with every passing day smugglers are cutting hundreds of trees in front of them. They said whenever they initiated action on their own and caught smugglers, they were subsequently set free by the forest officials once people handed them over to them (forest officials). “And the irony is that no punitive action is initiated against anyone,” lament locals.

Ashiq Hussain Rather, a local student said, "Foresters on duty remain always busy in ensuring safe passage for these smugglers who grease their palms with handsome booty in Bankoot and Chiternar compartments of Khiuhama range." He said vast tracts of forests in the Khiuhama range are now bald with just stumps of chopped off trees.Parvaiz Ahmed, another local said “it seems that government is paying huge salaries to its Rangers and Forestors for destroying forests instead of preserving them."

Locals said the smugglers with the support of Rangers and Foresters cut trees, and then employees of Forest department in each compartment set the stumps and remaining trunks on fire to show that the trees were destroyed by forest fires. “Forest officials including the Forester Wali Muhammed Mir, and Range Officer Abdul Rashid Lone use departmental vehicles to ferry illicit timber so that they could easily pass through the check post located at Range Office Khuihama and Mantrigam without any check,” informed a group of locals. They said the forest compartments 80-85 in Bankoot and 100-110 in Chitarnar are damaged beyond recognition and the forest officials are in no mood to arrest this damage. "Smugglers are doing their work without any fear and foresters are closing their eyes whenever they found them," said Shafaqat Ahmed, adding "corrupt Ranger of Khuihama and foresters of block Bankoot and Chiternar are the main culprits in this plunder.”

Sources in the forest department told ‘Kashmir Images’ that though Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) Bandipora initiated action against Forester manning the compartments 20-23 but in case of compartments 80-110, the DFO too is helpless. "The Forester and Range officer Khuihama are enjoying political patronage and the DFO is helpless and can do precious little,” sources said.

Worth mentioning here is that on the occasion of Chinar Day on April 04, the Deputy Commissioner Bandipora Shiekh Mushtaq was informed about growing forest smuggling in Bandipora forests and he subsequently took up the matter with Chief Conservator of Forests, who sent an inquiry team under supervision of Hafezulllah Mir (ACF) but surprisingly the inquiry team took the foresters actually involved in loot as their guides." Chief Conservator of Forests sent a team to inquire about the forest smuggling, but the concerned foresters and range officer didn't allow the team members to reach the spots of actual damage,” said a Forest employee pleading anonymity.

"Forest smuggling chain starts has smuggler at one end and the Range Officer at other and in-between are foresters, forest guards and others employees," he added. Locals alleged that Range Officer Kuihama in collaboration with Block Development Officer transporting two-three truck-loads of smuggled timber to other parts of district and outside of district every day. "Every day 2-3 trucks of timber leave from Khuihama range either during early morning or during late night to unknown destinations," said Mushtaq Ahmed, adding "I informed police several times, they even confiscated trucks loaded with illicit timber but then smugglers were let go off for unknown reasons and no one knows what happened to the timber that was seized.”

When contacted, Chief Conservator Forests Abdul Razak, said, "I have been receiving complaints of growing smuggling in the area; the officials found involved in the smuggling will be punished according to departmental rules after proper inquiry."

And Minster of Forests Qazi Afzal while admitting the involvement of forests officers in smuggling said, "There is background behind the involvement of forest officials in the forest thefts and cutting of green trees and we know it very well; ministry is going to investigate in the matter."

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